'Genius' Grant for Helping Teens Rebuild Lives

A dramatic black-and-white photograph dominates one wall of Dorothy Stoneman's modest office here. In it, jubilant teenagers wave out the windows and proudly stand arm-in-arm in front of a multistory brick building that they have just rebuilt.

The place is Second Avenue in East Harlem, New York. The year is 1979.

The photo is surrounded by numerous community-service awards. But its prominence speaks volumes about the mission Ms. Stoneman holds dear. It is a reminder of where she began, and, philosophically, where she is still coming from.

As founder and president of YouthBuild USA, Stoneman has worked to construct a movement to uplift the lives of youths on the margins of society and improve poor communities.

Last week, her 18-year effort entered the national spotlight when she was named a 1996 recipient of a MacArthur Fellowship for her work as a community activist. Each year, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation awards individuals large "genius" grants in recognition of significant contributions to their widely varied fields of work. The awards, which usually amount to around $300,000, are designed to give the recipients the freedom to build on current endeavors or branch off in new directions.

The idea behind YouthBuild is a simple one, Stoneman says during an interview in YouthBuild's Somerville, Mass., headquarters. It's about young people rebuilding their communities and in the process rebuilding their own lives.

It is a process, Stoneman says, that the vast majority of the teens she has worked with over almost two decades have been more than willing to engage in.

"Teenagers and young adults have always said to me, 'What can I do?' How do I get out of this bind that I'm in? How do I make up for what I did wrong in the past? Is there any way I can put my life back together given that I made a lot of mistakes?"

Stoneman says adults often overlook the fact that many troubled youths want direction in putting their lives back on track.

"The millions of young people in this country who have fallen off the edge of society are eager, ready, and waiting for an opportunity to do something constructive and to get back on path and to get a job and do something of value to the community and get an education," Stoneman says. "We really need a public policy that enables them to do that. "

If anyone can push that agenda forward, it seems she can.

Currently, 34 states host 100 YouthBuild programs. Young people train in construction, are paid a stipend to build housing for homeless or other low-income people, and attend an alternative school part-time to develop academic and leadership skills. Funding for YouthBuild is provided by federal and state monies as well as foundation grants and private contributions.

Once students graduate, they go on to other jobs, usually in construction, or continue with their education.

People have tried to pigeonhole YouthBuild, explains Stoneman, a mother of two and god-mother of 13. They have called it a job-training program, an alternative school, a crime-prevention program, a community development organization, and a leadership-development program. It is all these.

Stoneman has been a community activist from the start of her professional life. After graduating from Harvard University in 1963, she planted herself in Harlem amid the tumult of the civil-rights movement. She worked with preschoolers and parents to develop alternative schools. But as time went on, she saw many of the children she taught become mired in despair as teenagers.

Stoneman remembers thinking that someone had to take on the task of building a movement that could change the relationship of troubled young people to society them as a positive force. "This business of young people standing around on corners with nothing to do, in despair, fighting with each other, taking drugs because there's no useful role for them to play in society, is sin," she says.

In 1978, Stoneman and some former students founded the Youth Action Program (YAP) of the East Harlem Block Schools. They rehabilitated buildings, creating community centers, houses for homeless youth, a day-care center, a senior-citizens center, and more. YAP expanded citywide in 1984 as YouthBuild, and nationwide in 1988. One of the original young people in YAP is now a state assemblyman in New York, Francisco Diaz.

Now, YouthBuild is poised to go "massive national," Stoneman says. The timing of the MacArthur Fellowship, she adds, couldn't have been better.

Youthbuild has done things very quietly for a long time, according to Stoneman, who is described here by many as having "a heart of gold." While the movement has strong congressional support, press coverage has been "just enough so that we are legitimized but not enough so that there's public awareness of what YouthBuild is," Stoneman says.

Stoneman says she is thrilled by the MacArthur award. But earning it has left her with mixed feelings. "When people say to me, 'Aren't you proud of what you've done, isn't it wonderful you've got 100 YouthBuild programs?' part of me responds to that and says, 'Oh yeah, it's really wonderful, and it's been hard work,'" she says.

But her enthusiasm is tempered by the size of the tasks still ahead. "The other part of me wants to say, 'Hey, it's not wonderful: It shouldn't take 18 years and 7,000 person-years to get $100 million in the United States of America dedicated to young people rebuilding their communities."

The fact that it did leaves Stoneman sounding more surprised than frustrated.

"It's such obvious stuff," she muses. "We should have done it decades ago, and we should be doing it in a much larger scale."

One of the impediments to progress is cynicism, she contends. "You run into even very caring people believing that nothing works; they believe that poverty is inevitable, they believe that there is no way to change injustice, and I find that amazing."

IN an office down the hall, YouthBuild staffers Elijah Ethridge and Kevin Tarpley testify to the hard work everyone at YouthBuild seems "led" to do and how Stoneman has inspired teens and staff members alike.

"So often, not enough attention is paid to people who cultivate human potential. Dorothy has dedicated her life to that," says Mr. Ethridge, director of the YouthBuild program in Sandtown, Md., and president of the National Directors Association of the YouthBuild USA Affiliation Network. "When I think of Dorothy, I think of a miner who has an uncanny ability to recognize diamonds in the rough."

When Mr. Tarpley heard of the award, his first thought was to suggest Stoneman consider a new car. "Dorothy drives this old beat-up Chevy station wagon. You have to start it with a breakfast spoon," he says with a grin.

But her reaction was quite different. She ran around the office saying "write up a list of what you think we should do," Tarpley recalls, noting that the award is intended for the recipient, not necessarily the organization.

The two staffers have many stories to tell. They express pride that teens often view YouthBuild as a job placement program first, and are surprised to find themselves part of a family and embarked on a journey of renewal.

The ripple effect of this new outlook is extensive, Stoneman says. Adults in the community respect the efforts of the teens in their hard hats and toolbelts to make things better, and the young people in turn feel cared about.

"The relatives of the young people are saying, 'Wow, I never thought I'd see you do so well,'" she says.

This respect is the foundation on which the success of YouthBuild rests.

"The only real base of organizing is a base of love and respect and desire to take responsibility to create a better vision," Stoneman says, "and to generate that in other people."

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